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Jul 17, 2002

What Travelocity's Learned From Sending Two Million Email Marketing Messages per Day: Part I

SUMMARY: Did you know that on the average weekday Travelocity sends more than two million email marketing messages to its opt-in list? They have been doing this for more than three years now. Luckily they track results carefully. Check out our exclusive interview with Travelocity's Paul Briggs.In part I he reveals: Days of week and times of day that work best, Why two email newsletters are better than one, Subject lines that get your email opened (despite spam overload).
Travel e-retailer, Travelocity, sends an average of 2-3 million broadcast email messages a day to its own opt-in lists, now totaling 34 million names.

Which makes it one of the biggest broadcast emailers in the world (well, at least in the non-spam world).

This week we grilled Paul Briggs, Travelocity's Director of Research and Analytics for over an hour on every aspect of their broadcast campaigns, including email metrics, what works with newsletters, and how to decide when to take your broadcasting in- house versus using a vendor to handle sending emails for you.

Here are our most useful notes for you:

-> What works in email newsletters

Travelocity publishes two different email newsletters, 'Travelocity Insider' focusing on destinations such as European travel or ski vacation suggestions and 'Travelocity Real Deals' which gives specific discount travel offers.

Why not just combine them and publish one single newsletter?

Briggs explains, "Customers move through a buying cycle. The 'Insider' focuses more on the planning cycle, such as when you're first thinking about what to do this summer. As you get closer, when you're looking to get away next week, 'Real Deals' is much more applicable, much more important. It's got specific ideas in shopping. Together the newsletters move you through the process: awareness, interest, desire, action."

The marketing team has tested a wide variety of newsletter subject lines, only to find what works best these days is being boring!

"We learned very specifically, if you're sending a reoccurring message like a newsletter, our control pulled better every time. When we tried something different, it got a lower open rate."

Why would essentially the same old, same old subject line work best month in, month out? Briggs' figures recipients' inboxes are so full these days that messages that look familiar are more likely to get opened. "I know what it is. I'll open that one."

-> What works in email alerts

Travelocity also operates two different types of alerts systems. The first is it's Fare Watchers program that about 1.5 million people have joined to get email alerts whenever roundtrip airline fares get to a particularly low price between the cities of their choice.

The site also sends what Briggs calls "ad hoc" email campaigns to alert members about particular offers the marketing team comes up with during the month. For example, they might promote a specific airline fare sale. Few offers are sent to all members, instead the lists are chosen based on where the member is located, destinations they have purchased tickets for in the past, and how much email they have already received from Travelocity in the past month.

This last point is a key concern because the marketing team worries about the damage too much emailing can do to member lifetime value.

Therefore the Company's marketing database records all email contacts each individual address receives, including autoresponders, newsletters, personalized Fare Watcher bulletins, etc.

"We make sure we're not over-emailing you," says Briggs. "We have rules in place about how often you get promotional email. If you get selected for two different ad hoc mailings in a week, we'll probably only send you one of those. For general promotional types, you'll get once a month or once every three weeks."

In terms of subject lines, the team has learned to stay far away from anything that sounds remotely like it might be from a spammer.

"When I see 'Hot Deals' or 'Free' or 'Special,' I gotta question what kind of email it is," explains Briggs. "Superlatives turn me off because everyone throws them around. All the spammers do superlatives. You've got to use fairly straight-forward and honest subject lines. We've done some testing and some focus groups and learned make sure your subject lines are honest."

His creative tips for the body of the message itself:

- Do not ignore the text-version of your message. Many recipients still get text-only (in fact 35% of Travelocity's opt-ins request text instead of HTML) and there are plenty of ways you can tweak your text format to make it look better.

- Do not go to heavy on graphics in HTML. "You want a healthy balance. We had one group using, very heavy images and it did not pull very well. Don't hit them over the head with something that takes too long to download."

- Keep your key message and at least one hotlink above the fold. "If people are interested, they'll scroll down, there's no issue to that. But you still need to get your message up there without hitting them over the head with it. You have to balance how to deliver it."

Briggs also notes that "the fold" is very much a moving target when it comes to email because people view it in different sizes. "We design to 800x600 for the site and generally that's what our monitors are set to. But for email, is that going to be the size window they'll view through?" Often it is smaller.

- Use a slightly different writing style when copywriting for your house list. Recognize these are not strangers on a rental file getting an email from you for the first time. These are your own members and customers who have a perceived relationship with you.

"We increasingly treat them as people with a relationship with us. Hopefully it comes across as 'We'd like to let you know something of relevant interest to you.'" Instead of a hard sales pitch.

- When mailing to people outside the USA, "the importance of having local market people draft customer communications cannot be overstated."

-> Response trends: which time of week and time of day work best?

Briggs agrees with the vast majority of other email marketers we have interviewed that email marketing gets the best results when it is sent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with one surprising exception:

"We've seen some trends that indicate when you're mailing to AOL, you can do ok on the weekends."

This does not mean he recommends you switch your AOL mailings to weekends. If you have capacity constraints (for example, if you have a gargantuan campaign going out and need to stagger the send time so customer service and your Web servers can keep up with incoming response) then you may be able to mail AOL names as late as Friday and even perhaps Saturday, without dramatically hurting results.

(One way to see if this may work for you before you run a test campaign is to look at your site's current usage stats to see if AOL visitors increase as a percent of the mix on the weekends.)

However, Briggs definitely feels that mailing on Mondays is a bad idea no matter what the list. "On Monday people are swamped with email, catching up from a couple of days out."

Time of delivery also affects results. Travelocity generally mails in the morning between 8 A.M.- Noon. Names are divided by time zone so the mailing can be timed properly. Briggs notes if you are worried about incoming capacity, staggering your mailing outside of business hours will not help much because "everyone on the East Coast clicks through at the same time. For all practical purposes that mailing all got delivered at 9 A.M."

He also notes people who get personal email at work are likely to save it to read around noon. "We've seen some [click through] peaks in the lunch hour as it moves across the US time zones."


Enterprise-level email sending system Travelocity uses:
See Also:

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